Education commissioner: Policy change makes diplomas more valuable
The state had no choice but to abruptly change its graduation policies last week, Florida Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith told the Gradebook today. But the change makes a Florida diploma more valuable and its graduation rate more credible, he said.
“It’s a fairness issue. It’s a truth in advertising issue,” Smith said. “Your mom and dad, employers, the students have a right to know” what it takes to earn a standard diploma.
“This is good public policy,” he continued. “To be able to have a clear definition as to what is required to graduate in Florida (and) very clearly defined standards of achievement.”
At issue is the “GED exit option,” which the state threw on the dust heap Friday night. Most Florida high school students earn standard diplomas by earning 24 credits, maintaining a 2.0 GPA and passing the 10th grade Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. But under the GED exit option, students who fell short on credits or GPAs could still earn a standard diploma if: 1) they passed the GED and the FCAT; or 2) they passed the GED and earned a high enough score on college entrance exams.
Smith said the DOE legal staff discovered late last year, while examining proposed legislation, that the state did not have legal authority to offer the GED exit option. The department supported a bill last spring that sought to modify that option into an “alternative diploma” but it did not pass.
“We had to go ahead and follow through on what was permissible under the law,” he said. “That led to last week’s communication.”
Upset district officials said the state should have offered a phase-out or a future end date for the option. But Smith that was not possible. “To phase out what we didn’t have legal authority to do … that’s an interesting question,” he said. “I don’t see where I have that flexibility as commissioner.”
Smith said kids currently pursuing the GED exit option can continue down the path they’re on and earn an equivalency diploma. Or schools and districts can encourage them to pursue a standard diploma through other means.
He said he was not concerned about the 1 or 2 percentage point hit the change might make on Florida’s graduation rate.
“That’s probably the least of my concerns in the bigger scheme of things,” he said. “Just as our standard diploma needs to mean something, our published graduation rate needs to mean something. This will add to the credibility and the meaning of any published graduation rates that we have. I’ll help us to clean it up.”
Ron Matus, state education reporter